“I eat pretty well. But I never seem to lose weight.”
Sound familiar? It’s the first thing people say to me when we sit down to talk about their fitness goals and how their diet plays into them.
The fact is that simply eating “healthy” isn’t going to cause fat loss. You can eat healthy food all day, but if you eat too much of it, you will not lose fat. Our media and many popular diets have lied to us, promoting the idea that simple moderation is enough to cause fat loss. In reality, most people’s diets need a long-term, lifelong overhaul, not just a simple reduction in portion sizes or a trade-off from 5 Snickers snack bars per day to 3.
That’s not to say that portion control isn’t a factor in fat loss (see point #3, below). But portion control alone does not account for the different types of foods available to us, and knowing what foods to prioritize is an additional key to starting the fat loss process.
Here, then, are 3 diet changes just about everyone must make if they want to lose body fat:
#1. Prioritize protein over carbs
Protein is the foundation of a lean, strong body. It repairs muscles and tissues. It cannot be stored by the body as fat as easily as other nutrients. And many of the amino acids necessary in the body cannot be made by the body — so we must eat protein to get the appropriate amino acids.
In addition, people looking to lose body fat and maintain muscle mass need to eat more protein than average. Unfortunately, most people who simply attempt to lose fat via calorie or portion control often do not meet their protein needs. They choose to eat carbs — such as breads, grains, beans, fruits, and potatoes — over proteins, and when they realize their protein intake is too low, they can’t find ways to fit it into their diets without going over on calories. To make matters worse, many people eat more carbs than their body needs on a daily basis, creating an excess that the body will store as fat if those carbs aren’t used up.
The solution to this is simple:
Cut back the carbs that are taking up so much of your diet, and replace them with protein.
A good basic measure of protein portions is the palm of your hand. If you eat frequently, such as 5-6 small meals each day, shoot for 1 palm-sized portion of protein at each meal. If you eat less frequently, such as 3-4 larger meals per day, shoot for 2 palm-sized portions of protein at each meal.
Once you’ve added this protein to your meals, you’ll need to cut your carb portions back. Consider just eating carbs at 1-2 meals per day, or consider eating your carbs only after you’ve had your protein, and stop eating those carbs once you’re starting to feel full.
And then jump to #3 below to make sure you know the difference between just full and over stuffed.
#2. Eat veggies over fruit (and starchy carbs)
The recommended fruit and vegetable intake in the US tends to be somewhere in the 5-9 servings per day range, depending on age and information source. The problem, however, is that many people satisfy this recommendation (if they satisfy it at all!) with mostly fruit and very little veggies, which is A LOT of sugar for the body to handle.
For fat loss, however, veggies give you the bigger bang for your buck. Non-starchy vegetables, like broccoli, zucchini, greens, and lettuces, are far lower in calories and higher in volume than most popular fruits.
In other words, you can eat what appears to be a LOT of veggies for what amounts to not a lot of calories.
Contrast this with higher calorie popular fruits, like bananas, apples, pears, and melons, and the difference could be a couple hundred calories per day. This isn’t to say that all fruit should be off-limits for fat loss; rather, the focus should be on vegetables, not fruits, with fruits used in smaller amounts and as garnishes rather than central meal components.
The same goes for starchy carbs — rather than fill a dinner plate 1/2 with potatoes and 1/4 with spinach, flip flop those ratios. Fill a plate with 1/2 spinach, 1/4 potatoes (if you need the potatoes at all), and top it all with your protein selection.
If you can build your meals around mostly veggies and lean proteins, you’ll find yourself more easily satisfied after eating, and you’ll be well on your way to fat loss.
#3. Eat until you’re just full
You’ve probably heard the idea that your body doesn’t start to send out fullness signals until around 20 minutes after you start eating. Most of us, however, don’t need 20 minutes to eat a modest meal. And telling you to chew more slowly is trite and unpractical. Unless you’re sucking down your food faster than a shop vac, you’re probably eating slowly enough.
The struggle, then, is how to stop yourself when you’re just the right amount of full instead of continuing to eat until you’re stuffed. Building your meals around protein and veggies is a good start — both of those foods create fullness faster than many other foods.
But you’re also going to have to simply suck it up and stop eating sooner than you’re used to, and this is the habit that many people struggle with. We tend to show our love and to celebrate life via food, often via overeating food, and we have become accustomed to large meals and portion sizes. Changing this is really a matter of consciously choosing to stop eating. And as simple as the answer may be, it is also extraordinarily difficult.
One thing that can help is remembering to visually check portion sizes before you start eating. When you know your plate contains the properly sized portions to make your body full but not stuffed, you can start to pay attention to what just full, rather than stuffed, feels like. Once you stop eating at the proper portion sizes several times, you will get your brain and body accustomed to the feeling, so that after a while, you no longer have to consciously choose to stop eating. You’ll naturally feel like your meal is over when your proper portion sizes are gone; by repeating the behavior multiple times, you’ve normalized it.
You don’t need to jump from an unhealthy diet to an overwhelmingly restrictive meal plan. But you do have to make specific changes if you want to reach and maintain long-term fat loss. Protein, veggies, and learning to eat just to fullness are the big rocks of successful fat loss — once you’ve mastered those, then you can sweat the small stuff.